Under the Radar

5 Reasons You Need to Watch 'The Vietnam War' on PBS


The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is a towering achievement, definitely the best film they've ever made and quite possibly the finest program ever made by PBS.

That's true no matter what your views were during the war or what they are today. The filmmakers traveled the world so that men and women who had firsthand experience of the war and its impact on America could share their stories. They've stitched those interviews together with extensive news footage from the era and effective (but minimal) recreations of scenes on the ground in Vietnam.

It's an 18-hour, 10-night commitment running Sunday-Thursday nights September 17-28 The entire program will be streaming on the PBS apps and on their website. You can buy it on Blu-ray, DVD or Digital starting this week.

Everyone who watches this series will change at least some of their views of the war. In fact, you can see at least a few of the participants in the documentary start to change their feelings about the experience as they're being interviewed.

Here are 5 reasons why you should not miss this series.

1. Boots on the Ground

Long Khanh Province, Republic of Vietnam....SP4 R. Richter, 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, lifts his battle weary eyes to the heavens, as if to ask why? Sergeant Daniel E. Spencer stares down at their fallen comrade. The day's battle ended, the silently await the helicopter which will evacuate their comrade from the jungle covered hills. (National Archive)

The filmmakers decided early on that they would only interview men and women with direct wartime experience for this documentary. That means no generals or national security advisors giving a 30,000 ft overview, no maps in war rooms. The overall tale is pieced together from the experiences of infantrymen, fighter pilots, nurses, prisoners of war, helicopter pilots, embassy guards, families back home and students directly involved with the protest movement on the ground.

Famous people you might expect to hear from who are not interviewed in this film include Henry Kissinger, General Alexander Haig, Tom Hayden, John Kerry, John McCain, Oliver North, Robert McNamara and our trio of presidential draft avoiders: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

A few of the men and women interviewed have written important books about the Vietnam era but many others are Americans and Vietnamese citizens who are sharing their stories for the first time. They might not be well-known when I'm writing this, but more than a few will become important players in the history of the era as the documentary airs.

You do get Presidents Johnson and Nixon's voices in the film because they're represented by White House tape recordings that reveal some of the most shocking facts in the film.

2. Both Sides Now

Battle of Ap Bac, January, 1963: Captured VC POW

Actually, it's more like all sides now. If you let go of the idea that the North Vietnamese were actually Communists (something that's examined in incredible detail in the documentary without a definitive answer), then the United States was fighting in the middle of someone else's civil war.

Burns and Novick speak to Vietnamese journalists and historians, North Vietnamese troops and officers, Viet Cong fighters, North and South Vietnamese civilians and ARVN troops and officers. What emerges are the competing agendas within the warring nations, agendas into which many Americans serving there at the time had no insight nor even the intel necessary to develop any insights.

Many interview subjects talk about how the war is not discussed by many Vietnamese. PBS has taken the surprising step of making a Vietnamese-language version of the documentary available to stream from the website and opening access to the U.S. PBS website to internet users in Vietnam for the first time.

3. Gimme a Ticket for an Aeroplane

If you just look at the list of songs chosen for the soundtrack to The Vietnam War, you might think they seem incredibly obvious in that Big Chill sort of way. What's brilliant about the music selection is how the songs are played in their exact historical context (no song gets played when the events onscreen occurred before it was actually released) and they're given more weight and power because they were popular during certain moments during the war.

I've known all the words to "The Letter" by the Box Tops ever since I was four years old but I don't think I really understood why it was so important to older people until I saw it used here. That's true for dozens of classic R&B and rock songs used in the film.


4. Start the Conversation

USA. New York. 1970. "Hard-Hats" demonstrate in favor of the Vietnam War.

Everyone involved in this project hopes it will encourage Americans to examine and share their own experiences during and after the war. PBS has set up a page where anyone can share his or her Vietnam era stories and it's already a must-read even before the first episode has aired.

I've watched the film twice now and it's already led to in-depth conversations with my own father about his (1950s) Army service and my parents' reaction to the cultural upheaval when they were raising young friends. Friends that I've known for decades have shared their experiences with the draft lottery and I've finally learned more about the experiences my uncles and cousins when they served during the war. I expect many more conversations to come and I would be surprised if anyone who views the film doesn't have the same experience.

Burns and Novick's team made this film at the right moment. Most of the participants were far enough removed from the experience to have perspective but still young enough to remember and vividly share their stories.

I only wish some of the Greatest Generation guys were still around to see it, the cranky old men down at the VFW who thought they were the "greatest" because they won and didn't understand that it was the service and sacrifice that made them great.

5. Goodbye to Hanoi Jane

I've promised both filmmakers that I won't go into detail, but I'll confess that I've always thought the anger directed at Jane Fonda was overblown, that she'd somehow become a symbol for everything wrong with the protests against the war because she'd made an ill-advised trip to Hanoi.

I was wrong. The filmmakers have unearthed some footage of Jane Fonda that will shock anyone who doesn't remember seeing it on the news back in 1972. She's been accused of many things related to that trip to North Vietnam and there's been an extraordinary effort to prove that most of them are untrue. What she actually did will now out there for everyone to see for themselves.

We've got a lot coming during the next two weeks: separate interviews with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about the making of the documentary, an interview with Bank of American executive Jeff Cathey about the corporation's decision to fund such a potentially controversial film, a survey of books written by men and women interviewed during the program and Military.com staffers pick their favorite Vietnam War movies.

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